Just breathe

As a quiet observer in the office elevator this morning, I watched as this tall man breathed heavily, breaking the stillness with his audible inhalations and exhalations. Before I could think “oh awkward, does he know how loud he actually is”, I interrupted my own thoughts and wondered if perhaps being able to hear another person’s breathing should be considered normal.

How many of us suffer from shallow breathing?

Are we aware of the way we suppress our inhales and exhales to avoid emitting too much noise as it is “inappropriate”? Or by practising the “sucked-in belly” so as not to show our bulging tummies? Add to that stress and long hours hunching over a desk or electronic device, what happens? We become shallow chest or thoracic breathers.

When we breathe in a shallow way, the body remains in a cyclical state of stress—our stress causing shallow breathing and our shallow breathing causing stress.

Source: https://www.headspace.com/blog/2017/08/15/shallow-breathing-whole-body/

By contrast during yoga classes, we are encouraged to breeeeathe (teacher goes “I can’t hear your breathing!”) and not hold your breath even in uncomfortable poses.

I never really appreciated the breathing cues during yoga classes until I attempted to practise Surya Namaskar together with the corresponding inhales and exhales. What started as a tedious memorization test slowly revealed itself as being quite logical once I’ve gotten used to it. We see this in a forward bend – you exhale, contracting the abdomen and hence making space for a deeper stretch. It also acts as a pacer for me in group classes as I try to align my breathing with someone of similar respiratory rhythm.

As we have learnt, breathing is both involuntary and voluntary but intentional deep breathing provides massive benefits to us physically and mentally. There is an extensive discussion available online with numerous studies on the advantages of pranayama but for now, I would just like to share 4 things I have started to do in my humble attempt to try to reap some of the benefits:

  1. During the morning commute to work, I spend a short 3-5 minutes just focusing on abdominal breathing, counting each inhalation and exhalation as I go along. In just a week, I have found myself being able to increase in the length of each breath and it feels good to start the day with a clear mind.
  2. I tend to tense up at work and often catch myself holding my breath or taking in little sips of air when I’m stressed. Being conscious of my breath throughout the day allows me to remind myself to breathe properly. Many of us also wear a smart watch/device set at hourly intervals to remind us to stand up or move around. Whenever I get such an alert on my watch, I take the opportunity to do a quick check on my breathing as well.
  3. For those who are sensitive to environmental allergens, I have found that Anulom Vilom can very quickly clear a stuffy nose. While it doesn’t provide an instant remedy for the tightened chest and constricted airways, Anulom Vilom does help to diminish the anxiety as the discomfort gradually fades away.
  4. Before bedtime, I wind down by doing several rounds of Anulom Vilom in the hope of a calm mind and a good night’s rest.

Back to my thought this morning, since societal norms dictate that breathing loudly can be rather awkward, one can be really discreet while practising Anulom Vilom as compared to the other types of pranayama (well, that is if you don’t have a blocked nostril!), so this is definitely my go-to. Try to incorporate this into your daily life!